Dead Pretty by Roger Granelli by Roger Granelli - Read Online

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Summary

Mark Richards, having rebuilt his life after a traumatic, deprived past, is a private investigator in London. When his beautiful girlfriend, Lena, is brutally and sadistically slain his life is turned upside down. In his search for her killers, he becomes hunter and hunted, exacting revenge whilst trying to stay alive. His quest turns into a bloody rites of passage, which takes him from London to the Midlands, to the hills of south Wales, and, ultimately, to Amsterdam, where the savage climax of the book is played out amidst the seedy back alleys of the red light district. "Dead Pretty" is fast moving, full of dramatic set pieces, a murderous journey with a twist in its tail. Mark Richards finds out more than he ever wanted to know, old demons rear up again in his mind, and he has to reach deep into his soul to survive.
Published: Accent Press on
ISBN: 9781682990193
List price: $2.99
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Dead Pretty - Roger Granelli

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Chapter One

Mark thought Lena had left the cat’s food out, but not long enough for it to reek. This was a more subtle smell, a butcher’s shop smell of blood soaking into sawdust, cold and sweet, with something ominous at its edge, something that spoke of that journey from field to slaughterhouse, to butcher’s slab. Lena liked to give the cat food that didn’t come from tins, it was fond of liver, but there was no liver and no cat, not at first. Then Mark saw Danni, cowering under the settee, her black fur undulating as she breathed in rapidly, nostrils narrowed, eyes on fire, angry and fearful in equal measure. Though Mark had never much liked cats he clucked his tongue at her, but she retreated further under the recess, making a half-hearted hiss, that was more plea than threat.

Mark called for Lena but she didn’t answer. She’d be upstairs, sleeping the afternoon away, as she often did after the Amsterdam trip. He poured himself some of the orange juice she’d left out on the kitchen table. It was too warm, the day was too warm and his last job had been too warm. It was time to chill out a little, spend some money.

The smell wasn’t going away. Mark looked at the cat accusingly. The creature was desperate to get out and got up enough nerve to shoot past him, hurling herself through the flap in the door with a clatter and a strangled cry. He’d never seen it move so fast but the smell did not go with her and the cat’s bowl was empty. Mark left his juice, thought of something stronger then thought better of it and went upstairs. He’d shower, and join Lena. Maybe he wouldn’t even wake her until later. Maybe he wouldn’t shower.

The smell was getting stronger. Not so sweet now. Maybe it was the weather. They’d sweltered for the last week, hitting thirty some days. He looked in on Lena, as he’d done so many times before. She was often asleep when he came home. They led frenetic lifestyles that collided occasionally, fought occasionally and loved occasionally, but it suited them.

The blinds were drawn and Mark’s eyes took a moment to get used to the gloom. Lena was slumped on the bed, on her back in her usual position. She hadn’t even bothered to undress. Mark would have turned and gone to the shower room if it wasn’t for the smell. It was coming from here. It was coming from her. He switched on the light, stepped towards Lena, then stepped back quickly, almost falling. Mark stared for a few seconds, but didn’t want to believe his eyes. He turned away, opened the blinds, then the window, and leant on the sill for a few moments, blinking and breathing like the cat, filling his lungs with air in an effort to calm himself. Kids were chasing a kite in the park opposite, a few people walked dogs. An ice cream van was approaching, and the kids forgot about the kite when they heard its chimes, leaving it to lose shape and fall silently to the ground. The van was playing a snippet of Italian opera. It felt like an age before Mark could turn back to the bed.

There was not that much blood, not as much as you might expect, and what was there had congealed into a dull red paste. Lena’s eyes stared past him, as blue as the sky, and fixed on eternity. Her stomach had been ripped open, and other organs were visible. They glistened slightly. All the cheap horror films Mark had seen as a kid reared up before him. He’d watched videos with singular dedication, smoking and drinking away the wasteland of his youth. They had been substitutes for school, seen so many times that gore meant nothing, just paint on the screen. It meant something now.

Mark began to swear, a litany of rage as he steadied himself on a bedpost of that ridiculous four-poster Lena had insisted on, until he could look at her again. Her face was unmarked, if it had registered horror when she’d died someone had smoothed this from it and there was no sign of a struggle. Her top had been opened carefully, as if someone had calmly undressed her, and she’d let him. Mark was not sure how long he stood there before he touched her face. His senses had almost shut down, but he felt his eyes becoming wet. He stretched out a shaking hand to touch her skin and it was as cold as a church wall. He drew it away quickly. A fist was grabbing at his guts, trying to push its way out and make him like Lena. He pulled at his shirt and ripped open the top buttons, but it was still hard to get his breath. Mark looked around. Everything was in its place, neat and tidy, like Lena had always kept it. Nothing unusual except a gutted woman on the bed. His woman.

Mark sat down on the bed, gingerly, as if he didn’t want to cause Lena any more hurt. He wasn’t sure what he felt, it was a mix of rage, shock, disbelief, and maybe self-pity too, that old demon he’d all but conquered by putting his life back on track, and his past in its place. Mark looked around a bit more, but there was no sign of a break-in. Nothing had been touched. Nothing.

They’d think it was him. He tried to keep this thought out of his head but it jostled for first place amongst all the other emotions. His eyes kept going back to the wound. It was fixing itself in his mind, making a home there, becoming a permanent image that could be viewed any time in his private hell. He gently closed Lena’s blouse and began to tidy her long hair, a genuine dirty blonde, smoothing it into the style she liked. Then he closed her eyes. It took two attempts and he kept his own shut.

His mobile rang, his new blues ring tone, If You’re Looking For Trouble, and Mark answered it.

‘I’d get out of there now if I were you,’ a voice said, ‘they’ll think you did it.’ The voice had a slight accent which he couldn’t place, then it was gone. Mark had no reason to run, but the voice put his own thoughts into words. His past would scream out his guilt. Mark Richards, delinquent thug, serial burglar. Then they’d find out about his baby brother. He’d be news again, all across the country – again. After years of quiet, of something approaching a life, his world would be ripped apart. He was being stupid, his world was already ripped apart, Lena lying cut up and very dead besides him.

Mark went to the bottom drawer of a cupboard and took out a tin box. His passport and money were in it and hadn’t been touched. He put this stuff into his pockets and was almost out of the room before he forced himself to look back. He couldn’t leave Lena like this, found and abandoned in minutes, so he went into the other bedroom, brought a blanket back, and placed it over Lena, as if to cover up her pain, and his confusion. Mark was not confused about the white hot angry grief that was beginning to surge through him.

Very few people knew the number of his private mobile, but the voice did, and it knew he was here, so that meant someone was watching him. It might be the voice of Lena’s killer, it might be inviting him to run into the arms of the police, but he had to get out, to get away and think. He stumbled towards the door, seeing Lena smile again, seeing her snarl, the complicated Lena of a thousand scenes, the tender lover of more than a few. So beautiful.

Mark heard sirens and began to run, out into the sunlight of the block’s back yard, up and over the rear wall like the cat he’d always been, then down the alleyway and into the bustling street on the other side, his head blown apart. He’d gone straight since he turned twenty, that was the crazy fucking part of all this. His reward.

He slowed down, and tried to walk calmly into the adjacent street, where he went down the steps of the underground and got on the first train that pulled in. His head felt like the shaking tube, hollow, rushing, digging deep into the belly of the earth. It was mid-afternoon of a lazy summer day but it wasn’t that full. Tourists mainly, inquisitive faces, some happy, some tired and lost, but none running away from a butchered partner. Someone was staring at him, a woman, Japanese maybe, one of a group that looked as if they’d been welded together. Was he talking to himself? He hadn’t done that since the old days. Mark looked away, down at the floor, then at his reflection in the dirty window glass. It merged with the walls as the train rushed past. A snatch of anguish here, a wild eye there. A desperate face flashing back at him every time.

The police would be tapping him into a computer any minute. His past would arrange itself neatly and stop at the last young offenders’ home. It wouldn’t take them long to track him to the agency, to find out what he did. He’d have to get out of the city. Kelly would help, as long as Mark didn’t mention Lena. That would be too much for that Irish runt.

Mark got off after two stops, and walked the rest of the way, trying to merge with other people, to put all his self-imposed training into practice. The life long ability to fade into shadows, to lose himself into the night, all the stuff he’d played at when he was a kid was now real. Kelly was in the Queen’s Head; he always was at this time, in a corner, his table a mess of betting slips, piled cigarette ends, and a few empty half pint glasses. Kelly thought he saved money drinking this way. There were a few others in there of similar stamp, and no one else.

Kelly was sinking into an alcohol and no-wins fug when Mark tapped him on the shoulder.

‘Jesus, Mr Richards, don’t do that, man.’

Kelly had lost a little of his brogue. Now it had merged into a strange mix of south London and Donegal. The Irishman scanned him shrewdly as he sat down.

‘Where’s the fire?’

‘Go and get me a drink. A large one.’

Mark found a crumpled ten and threw it at Kelly.

‘And get yourself one.’

‘Large one?’

‘Whatever.’

He came back with two large shots of Jameson’s and a small jug of water. Like many drunks, Kelly was meticulous in his preparation, and messy afterwards.

‘I want you to get me a car,’ Mark said.

‘What’s up with you? You know I don’t do that no more. I’m always too pissed to drive for a start.’

‘You’ve never been too pissed. You could drive asleep. You probably have.’

Mark was calming a little. At least outwardly. The last hour was starting to become dreamlike. He’d wake up in a minute, sit up in bed sweating, swearing, then see Lena besides him in that deep sleep she’d perfected that always mocked his own fractured napping. The last few years with her had been an interlude, a time that had almost got him believing that change was possible, believing in things like normal, ordinary, and almost daring to believe in happy.

Mark felt the wad of notes in his chest pocket and wondered how much to give Kelly. His chosen helper was not much to look at, and there was probably even less inside. Kelly was a wasted little man, maybe fifty, but he’d fucked himself up so much he looked far older. A bit of red fuzz was left for hair, watery grey eyes were set too close to his nose, which was small and sharp, and amazingly had never been broken, and his teeth were just a decaying memory. There was always a certain smell about the man, nicotine, whisky and sweat combined for the Kelly trademark, plus the overcoat that was always with him, even on a hot day like this. Watching Kelly mix water with his drink Mark realised how alone he was, again.

‘I want something fast, but not showy,’ Mark murmured.

Kelly studied his drink and sighed.

‘Water, never ice, that’s the trick with Irish.’

He raised his glass against the window light, which the sun caught for a moment in the fuliginous air, making the liquid burnt orange. Kelly gazed on it with a moment’s reverence and downed it.

‘Look, Mr Richards, what’s going on? You never asked me to rob no car before. A bit of following people, getting you the odd name, but never robbing.’

Lena flashed into Mark’s mind, open and bloody, he couldn’t keep her out. He fought to stop his hands from shaking and drank his own drink, quickly, so that it seared and kicked at his empty gut. She’d eaten pasta for lunch, he thought, before almost coughing up the drink.

‘What’s the matter, Mr Richards, I ain’t never seen you like this. You look like you bin to hell and back. Been on a bender, eh?’

‘Nothing’s the matter.’

‘You’re spooked, that’s what you are.’

Kelly said this with a certain satisfaction. Mr Richards, with a body opposite to his in every way, and a lifestyle to match, was shaking, and wanted a car. Kelly felt important.

‘Must be something bad for you to be like this. Wanna car that blends in, eh? Well, I don’t know.’

Mark took hold of Kelly’s arm, which felt like a stick in his powerful grip.

‘You do know. You used to nick cars for fifty quid, and change the number plates.’

‘That was years ago. Fifty quid, you must be joking.’

Mark looked at Kelly’s charity shop pick-and-mix outfit.

‘I’ll give you two hundred if you get me one by six. You’ll have plates in that hovel you live in. You’ll have kept some, just in case.’

‘Look, I don’t want no bother, Mr Richards.’

Mark put three twenties on the table.

‘The rest later. I’ll come round to your place at six.’

He worked his thumb through the roll of the money as Kelly watched, his eyes sharp flints, his body on greed alert.

‘You owe me, Kelly.’

‘Yeah, I know, but …’

Mark dug his fingers into Kelly’s arm, making him gasp.

‘You owe me.’

‘Okay, okay.’

‘Don’t fuck up and you’ll have enough to bet on everything that runs tomorrow. Get going.’

Mark helped Kelly out of his chair and left with him. It wasn’t much of a plan. The police might pick up Kelly any time that night but they wouldn’t get much out of him, or the Queen’s Head. It was full of people who were deaf, dumb and blind. Kelly would be shaken when the news hit, but fear would be added to it, and his tongue would lock up even more. If it didn’t happen like this there was nothing Mark could do about it.

Chapter Two

That voice on the phone. Mark could hear it echoing in his head. They’ll think it was you. The accent was Dutch, maybe Slav, one of those bandit territory places, but he’d never had contact with anyone like that, and Lena, what connection could she possibly have, for Christ sake? Lena, a full-time model and part-time student. Her never-ending Open University degree, women’s studies, which had gone on for as long as he’d known her. Mark had made no real enemies in London, as far as he knew, or anywhere else, for that matter. The childhood stuff in Wales was of no interest to anyone here. Yes, his two-year-old brother Shane had gone missing from the garden of their council house, yes it had fucked his mother up, it had fucked him up, and the fact Shane had never been found had kept it fresh but no one else cared about that. It was the Richards family tragedy, history he had to live with. And he had, in his way, keeping out of trouble, doing bailiff work, sometimes providing protection for Z-list celebs, and lately private dick stuff. Checking out on a few missing people, and the odd shagging-away husband for an agency up town.

Mark had met Lena on a celeb minder job. She’d just finished a photo shoot and noticed him hanging around on the fringes of a function, looking tough and uncomfortable in his suit. She’d picked him up, at least that was how it seemed at the time. He’d been flattered enough to ignore his usual suspicion, though he did think she might have been a high-class call girl. She wasn’t and it had worked, and lasted, until a few hours ago. None of it made any sense, but he’d have to make sense of it. For Lena, and himself.

Mark hadn’t thought of Shane for some time, but finding your girlfriend butchered focused the mind on such things. Mark saw his mother Julie’s face that day when Shane didn’t turn up. The way she looked at him. The way she accused. He was on the phone, talking to his fence, Shane was in the garden playing, then gone. For good. A disappearance to end all others. The locals gorged on it, everyone had a take on what happened to Shane, every talking head wanker the media could dig up had its say, and most of the talk involved Mark. Julie no longer thought he’d had anything to do with it, they’d come that far at least, but in the pit of his guts Mark could never really be sure.

Tragedy had created space, and this had stretched to distance between them. When Julie heard about Lena all the pain would sharpen up again, and old doubts flood through her mind. The police would be down to see her pretty soon, sniffing around for him. Valley Boy running home. At least Julie wasn’t on that estate any more, she was twenty miles away, down on the coast, in a flat, and working in a TV factory. A new start, away from the tongues and the looks, and the awful celebrity. The media would bring Shane up again, of course they would. He could hear the voices getting into their stride again   ripped his girlfriend open did he, that proves it must have been him with the kid. Aye, I remember Mark Richards, a crazy bastard, Psycho Eyes we used to call him around here. I’d bring back the rope, I would. Then the nationals would piece it together and he’d be famous once more, for another long fifteen minutes.

Mark walked around until six, keeping off the main streets, going into a few parks, watching all the people going home, like he had only a few days ago. Like him, Lena hadn’t had much of a start in the world. Her father was just a yellowed black and white photograph, and she had never bothered with her mother as soon as she was old enough to get away. Lena had a brother somewhere in the Midlands – Tony, he’d have his address in the small book he always carried. Thank Christ he did, for everything else was in the flat. Mark had only met Tony a few times. The man was nothing like Lena, Tony was a man in his mid-thirties with big hair from another age, who looked like a cross between a pimp and a hairdresser, complete with rings and false tan. Lena never said much about him, which was one of the things Mark liked most about her. They shared a mutual reticence about the past, it had helped draw them together. They were a new beginning for each other and it had worked, in its way. When she went off on modelling jobs Mark never asked too much.

Mark felt his eyes becoming wet again and brushed them with the back of a hand. It was the first time in years they’d performed like this. The last time was on that beach in Shetland. He’d been sent there as the final part of his young offenders’ stint. They did things like that then, gave twisted kids the chance to try the life of the rich, as if a new way of life could be caught, like a disease. It was an outward bound course, a problem, one-parent, shattered family kid mixing with public school boys, crazy, but it took him to a beach near Lerwick, which was fresh, open, and empty. Flat sand and shingle stretching up to a big sky which might have been another planet for him. He’d learned to row and had seen whales, seen them swimming around the boat, seen them dead on the beach, washed up for no apparent reason. He’d cried then, for himself, and his whole cracked upbringing, he’d cried about the state of the world, and his own dark place in it, which also seemed to have no apparent reason. He cried for his missing baby brother, that more than anything. Now he did so for a woman, dabbing at his eyes and wondered if it had been love.

If Kelly cocked up there was no plan B. Mark’s mind was in no state to think of one. It was hard enough keeping that image of Lena out of it, he wanted to see her laughing in the park over the road, trying to brain him with a frisbee, he wanted to see her the only time they been on holiday; Paris, a place she knew well, which enveloped him in winter chill, strange light and long nights. He wanted to see her like this, but shades of red cut into him whenever he tried.

Mark stood in the alley behind Kelly’s place. All seemed quiet. Kelly had a bed-sit, on the second floor, not much more than a rancid squat. Downstairs was a boarded-up shop. Mark went up the back stairs and knocked his door lightly, thinking how easy it would be for Kelly to grass him up, for the Old Bill to open, and the rest of them rush up the stairs. Would he resist? He wasn’t sure, but old habits died hard.

There were no police. Kelly opened the door to a crack and squinted through with his stubbly, weasel-like face. Mark pushed past him.

‘Did you get it?’ Mark asked.

Kelly nodded towards the window with his head. In the street, amongst the bent and busted bangers was a Mondeo, not too old.

‘What do you think I am, a fucking rep?’ Mark said.

‘I know, Mr Richards, but I used my head, see. Millions of these buggers about, you won’t stick out, like, and I had some ‘Y’ plates that are the right year for it. It’s a good car that is, a good workhorse and it’s gotta full tank.’

‘Where are the real ones? I don’t want you keeping them.’

‘In the river.’

Mark doubted that they were. Number plates were collateral for Kelly.

‘Key?’

‘These will be OK. Got a good collection of Ford.’

Mark scoured the street. It was full of crap and a few people coming home from work but empty of police. Not much action at all, really. A few Rasta sweating and smoking on the corner, and a fat git slouched against the doorway of his video shop, probably wishing it was winter and pissing down, so that he might get a bit more trade. Kelly’s room stank. It had been innocent of a real clean since Kelly had moved in. Mark knew the smell, he’d been in so many places like this, they permeated his life from its earliest days. It was the smell of failure, that ‘going nowhere’ sourness that was so hard to get rid of once it attached itself to you. It was the deadliest virus he knew.

‘My money, Mr Richards?’

Mark took the notes from his inside pocket but stayed Kelly’s reaching hand. It seemed pathetically small inside his own.

‘Don’t go blowing this like a fool, I’ll know if you do.’

‘I won’t, I didn’t get where I am doing anything stupid like that.’

Mark’s eyes swept past him to Kelly’s few square feet of nothing and would have laughed if it wasn’t so tragic, if his girlfriend had not been cut up that morning. She’d be on some slab somewhere now, a bored pathologist going about his business one more time. Not that he felt any better than Kelly, not this day. Kelly would never have a killing pinned on him.

‘What will you say, Kelly, if anyone comes asking about me?’

Kelly jumped to his cue.

‘Nothing, Mr Richards, you know I’m good for that. Always good for that.’

‘And if someone says they saw us in the Queen’s Head?’

‘Not much chance of that, but if they did, well, I always drink there. We was just passing the time of day, like.’

‘Good.’

Kelly squirmed under Mark’s stare. He let him take the money. As Kelly pocketed it Mark wondered who else would be coming around, and what tactics they would use. Was anyone after him, too? How could he know? Lena was dead and he didn’t know why. He had no motive, no names, nothing was taken from the flat. He felt his body tense as he thought of catching up with her killer. Muscles were tightening, his hands flexed, six foot two and fourteen seven of perfect shape wanted a result. Kelly edged away from him, five foot four of hopelessness in piss-stained trousers, but Mark felt more kinship with the man than anything else.

‘It’s OK, Kelly,’ Mark said softly, ‘nothing’s going to happen to you, as long as you keep it shut.’

Mark took the keys and went out quickly. It wouldn’t do to keep the car long, but it should get him to Coventry, to Tony. It was all he could think to do. Lena had seen her brother quite recently, when she’d been working in Birmingham. As he thought of it now he remembered her quietness that following week, almost introverted, which wasn’t like her. That was his show.

The Mondeo had a full tank, and an air freshener hanging on the dash that immediately activated his hay fever. It was a two-litre job, its interior pretending to be something grand but it went well enough, which